The 10th Circuit, in Grace Hwang v. Kansas State University, Case No. 13-2070 (10th Cir. May 29, 2014), recently ruled under the Rehabilitation Act, which is the corollary to the Americans with Disabilities Act, for entities that receive federal funding, here, Kansas State University, that the University did not violate the law when it refused to extend a professor's medical leave beyond the six month maximum set forth in the University's policy. The decision is being hailed as a minor victory for employers in gaining some clarity on how much leave an employer must provide as a reasonable accommodation, i.e., a reasonable time to heal, under federal disability law.
Hwang, a non-tenured assistant professor, had a one year contract to teach in the fall, spring and summer terms. Before beginning in the fall, she learned she had cancer and she requested a six month paid medical leave, which the University granted. At the expiration of the six month leave, Hwang was advised by her physician to seek additional time through the end of the spring semester, but the University refused, citing to its inflexible leave policy allowing no more than six months' sick time. The University, at this point, did facilitate Hwang's receipt of long term disability benefits, but did effectively terminate her employment.
Hwang's principal argument was that the University's inflexible leave policy violated the Rehabilitation Act and in support of same cited to a passage in the 2002 EEOC enforcement guidelines that states if an employee with a disability needs additional unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, the employer "must modify its 'no-fault' leave policy" to provide such additional leave unless the employer can show an alternate effective accommodation would allow the employee to perform the job or that providing additional leave would cause undue hardship.
The court disagreed saying, "There's no question [Hwang's] a capable teacher, no question she's disabled within the meaning of the Act. But there's also no question she wasn't able to perform the essential functions of her job even with a reasonable accommodation - here, additional leave time. By her own admission, she couldn't work at any point in any manner for a period spanning more than six months. It perhaps goes without saying that an employee who isn't capable of working for so long isn't an employee capable of performing a job's essential functions - and that requiring an employer to keep a job open for so long doesn't qualify as a reasonable accommodation. After all, reasonable accommodations - typically things like adding ramps or allowing more flexible working hours - are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work." [internal citations omitted]
This decision, as initially stated, is hopefully a start in helping employers understand how much leave time they must grant as a reasonable accommodation. However, this case is being appealed and does fly in the face of the EEOC's recent and continued crusade against companies with inflexible leave policies. So employers still need to beware that these cases (leave cases) will continue to be decided on the facts presented. However, it is encouraging to see the courts bringing some "focus" to the issue. Undoubtedly, there is more to come in this struggle between advocates of indefinite leave as an accommodation and the practical realities of needing to run a business which requires employees' attendance at work.